sticky notes posted on a wall

Atheism in the Classroom

Atheism is the belief in nothing. This is a statement I have heard in my middle school and high school classrooms many times. This is a statement, I am ashamed to admit, that I have made myself. Saying than an atheist does not have a belief system is naïve and sadly, a common misconception. Atheism, by its simple definition, stems from the root word ‘theism’ which is the belief in a higher power or deity; thus, ‘a-theism’ is the lack of belief in this deity. It is not the belief in nothing. Rather, it is the absence of faith in a godlike figure and instead, a faith rooted in other sources.

There are several avenues of beliefs for atheists. Many believers, rather than resting their faith in a god, believe in the power of the human mind. In her essay “The Philosophy of Atheism,” author Emma Goldman, says that the major philosophy of Atheism is focused on the growth and continual development of the human mind (McGowan, 2012). She believes in the power of rational thought—that all truth and understanding of the world stems from the mind and understanding of one’s own mind. In her opinion, the mind is continually expanding, whereas the “philosophy of theism…is static and fixed” (McGowan, 2012). Her view expresses one of the major ideas behind Atheism—that humans are perfectly capable of running their own lives and gods only get in the way of humans taking responsibility for themselves. To explain this further, she says, “…the God idea express[es] a sort of spiritualistic stimulus to satisfy the fads and fancies of every shade of human weakness…Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty” (McGowan, 2012).

Goldman, like many other atheists, believes that humans need to free themselves from a belief in gods in order to focus on the self and make the best out of life. Atheists that follow this avenue of thought focus on the shortcomings of theism and other god-based religions, expressing that morals and ethics are always changing based on man—on rules, on social stigmas, on societies. They argue that right and wrong is changing and can only be determined by humans themselves, rather than a god or belief in a god that has only created (in the opinion of some atheists) self-righteous and hypocritical believers.

Goldman’s beliefs are strong, but they are not the only beliefs that atheists may follow. Rather than focusing on the mind, some atheists argue for science over theism. Instead of simply negating theism, they argue for principles of research and reason.

What is difficult about Atheism in a classroom setting, first and foremost, is that there isn’t a set belief. One atheist student may believe in the human mind or in science; another student may simply not believe in a god and have neither a reason why, nor a belief in anything else. As a teacher, working with students that simply do not agree with any form of higher power may prove to be a challenge because they might be unwilling to study religions or participate in classroom activities. It is difficult in general to engage students in something they do not follow nor agree with; it will be even harder engaging students in something religious-based or spiritual.

A lack of participation will obviously be a challenge, but beyond that, another challenge of teaching atheist students is that they are often neglected because the study of religion, more often than not, does not include Atheism as a topic. In a chapter entitled, “Invisible, Marginalized, and Stigmatized: Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Atheist Students,” authors Goodman and Mueller explain that, “Atheist students, like atheists in the broader society, are often stigmatized as immoral, evil, or god hating. Because of this stigmatization, it is common for atheists to hide that aspect of their identity, rendering them invisible. Educators contribute to that invisibility when they fail to include non-believing perspectives in religious and spiritual development work with students, thus marginalizing students further” (Goodman & Mueller, 2009). As this section describes, atheist students are often left out of classroom study or discussions, merely based on the fact that Atheism is not usually recognized as a ‘belief’ by educational standards. Because the curriculum does not include Atheism, these students are often quiet about their beliefs—this is another challenge, because in order to support these students, a teacher must know their beliefs. If they are quiet then they will be, as the article states, invisible and marginalized (Goodman & Mueller, 2009).

There are other viewpoints on the classroom setting. Author Patrick West expresses in his article that Atheism should not be taught in the classroom because it is simply a disbelief in religion in all its forms (West, 2004). This notion can be a challenge for teachers because the teacher might want to include Atheism in the religious studies, but may be faced with an atheist student who is against this idea altogether. Other challenges that an atheist student may face are disrespect or bullying from classmates, or spiritual confusion. Because Atheism isn’t always incorporated into the school curriculum, when this belief system is brought to the attention of other classmates, it can become a negative, bullying situation. As for spiritual confusion, some atheist students may struggle with what they believe about themselves and about the world. They may be sure that no god exists, but might still be unsure about science or other avenues of faith. As a teacher, it will be difficult to guide these students without influencing them with personal beliefs. It can also be difficult to relate to them, based on the teacher’s personal religious background.

There are many challenges in working with atheist students; however, making sure that these students feel comfortable in the classroom is the ultimate goal. In order to be a successful teacher, one of the things I plan to do in my classroom is make sure that the learning environment is comfortable for all students—this means discussing religion as more of spirituality and morality rather than a set system of beliefs. I also plan to include some information on Atheism. Despite the argument against having atheistic beliefs discussed in the classroom, I think allowing students to feel comfortable not believing in a god is just as important as allowing students to feel comfortable believing. In doing this, however, I will make my lessons unbiased in order to keep from preaching or advocating for a specific religion. I truly believe that students can benefit from understanding the perspectives of Atheism. According to an article about religious education, it is important for teachers to “take time to learn more about Atheism, including its history and principles, as well as related myths and misconceptions” (Goodman & Mueller, 2009). Atheism needs to be ‘normalized’ in the classroom; in other words, not having faith in a god should be just as acceptable as having faith (Watson, 2008). For my future classroom, I will make sure that students feel comfortable and able to discuss their beliefs under the umbrella of spirituality and overall moral development.

There are many ways that I plan to accommodate and work with atheist students and parents in my future classroom. First, I will make sure to inform all students and parents about the religions that will be discussed in the classroom beforehand. There will be a note sheet of some sort that the students will take home with them, outlining the major topics of the semester (since I am an English teacher, the religions will mostly deal with different novels, for example: The Scarlet Letter and Puritanism). If I inform students and parents beforehand, I am opening the door for discussion and for parents to come to me with any concerns. I will also make sure that during classroom discussion, I stop students if they are expressing their beliefs to the point that it could potentially make others uncomfortable; I can also substitute open discussion for personal written responses to eliminate any issues. I also plan to keep my personal beliefs from interfering with the classroom—this can be simply by not discussing my faith in front of students or parents. If there is a religious holiday, I will also make sure to keep this from interfering with the curriculum, for example, not having a classroom Christmas party so that students who don’t celebrate Christmas won’t feel uncomfortable.

Overall, atheists do not believe in a god or deity. Atheism is not necessarily considered a religion, nor is it always considered a belief by its followers; however, it is, in its own right, a faith that can and should be incorporated in the classroom setting. Being a future English teacher, I know that I may have to work with atheist students. I need to be open to their beliefs, bring them into the classroom discussion, and allow these students to feel comfortable and not invisible. There will be many challenges in working with students without faith in a higher power; however, my focus should be on educating the student as a person, not persuading him or her to believe in a certain thing. Challenges will make classes difficult at times, but if I am receptive to student beliefs, then I will have a successful and wonderfully diverse classroom.

 

 

To see the pdf version and complete list of sources, click here.

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Featured Image Credit: Kelly Sikkema

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Queuing Creativity: The Effect of Creative Writing in Secondary Classrooms

English and Reading are two of the most essential content areas of education, simply because they are prevalent in almost every college major and occupation. As a future teacher, I am interested in the way that these two disciplines would intersect, whether through strategies, practices, or classroom activities/assignments. What I realized through my Teaching Reading 5-12 textbook, The Reading/Writing Connection: Strategies for Teaching and Learning in the Secondary Classroom, and other resources, is that there is much connection between the two; in fact, I would say that intersecting the two disciplines is essential for any successful classroom curriculum.

In my future, I plan to teach both Secondary English and Secondary Reading. Both of these content areas involve literacy—one of the biggest issues in today’s education world because students are steadily falling behind on literacy rates and struggling with their reading levels. Something that I’ve learned through my research for this class is that strategies that intermix both reading and English—particularly creative writing strategies—are what will merge any gaps between reading and English, help with falling literacy rates, and enhance my classroom, whether a secondary English classroom, or more relevantly, a secondary reading classroom.

Being a Creative Writing major, I’m always interested in ways that I can bring this subject area into the classroom, whether through strategies, activities, homework assignments, projects, ways to approach reading and writing material, etc. With my fall clinical placement in Mason City High School, I encouraged creative writing, bringing activities such as a ‘Tuesdays with Morrie Teacher/Influential Poem Project’ into the curriculum. I wanted to use creative writing as a means of reaching the students both directly and indirectly. By having them write a personal poem they were not only proving their understanding of the text Tuesdays with Morrie (a direct/explicit connection to the text), but they were also engaging with the content in a way that connected to their personal lives (indirect connection). It was the strategy of the creative writing—self/narrative writing specifically—that allowed the students to have that deeper, more personal connection.

In every aspect of a secondary reading/English classroom, creative writing is relevant. In preparing for my clinicals, one of the biggest resources I referenced was the National Writing Project website, which in its ‘Who We Are’ section states that it is a network of websites “anchored at colleges and universities and serving teachers across disciplines and at all levels, early childhood through university” (NWP, 2014). The National Writing Project focuses on the importance of writing in the classroom—writing, a necessary component of education within itself, but also necessary for literacy. As a part of their mission, the main page states:

Writing is essential to communication, learning, and citizenship. It is the currency of the new workplace and global economy. Writing helps us convey ideas, solve problems, and understand our changing world. Writing is a bridge to the future (NWP, 2014).

This paragraph perfectly explains the importance and relevance of writing. It is not only a major aspect of the secondary classroom, but also the workplace and outside world. Because of writing’s importance for literacy, communication, and problem-solving, I believe that strategies which encourage writing and develop writing in new ways are necessary to improve student writing and reading skills.

In an article under the ‘National Programs’ tab of the NWP website, teacher Andrea Heckner explains her implementation of creative writing strategies in her struggling classroom. She was a newly hired teacher at a large urban high school; upon entering the classroom, she was faced with ‘worn-out’ textbooks and ‘no books, curriculum or resources to use’ (Heckner, 2012). To start the article, she explains that early in the class she gave the students their first assignment: a persuasive paper. After explaining the guidelines and rubric twice, she was surprised to receive only blank stares. According to her students, they hadn’t been given any ‘real’ work in years—‘real’ work defined by a student as “homework of any kind, papers, and long assignments” (Heckner, 2012). In shock, Heckner decided to back the students up and get them to just explore writing and reading. The students “read autobiographies as well as excerpts from diaries, journals, and artful obituaries,” she then “talked about the need for the reader to hear the writer’s voice” (Heckner, 2012). For the students’ first assignment, she had them write creatively. Their first piece was entitled, ‘My Family’s Beginning’ and was written as a first-person, narrative, creative piece.

After the assignment, Heckner reflects:

My students began to see themselves as writers. They actually began to ask each other about their writing. They started discussions about writing…The wrote to tell their stories…We discussed point of view and credibility, had long discussions on how others might tell different versions of the same story, and how this made the perspective neither right nor wrong (Heckner, 2012).

For Heckner’s students, their success in both writing (writing an autobiography/narrative piece) and reading (reading each other’s stories, autobiographies, diaries, journals, etc.) came from the integration of creative writing strategies into the curriculum. When the students were first faced with a writing assignment, a persuasive essay, they were confused and frustrated. They hadn’t been doing ‘real’ work and were definitely opposed to the idea of writing. When Heckner brought in writing and reading through a creative lens, she was able to bridge the gap between students’ personal lives and classroom material. She was able to connect the students to content in personal ways; the creative writing aspect opened an outlet for students to write freely about themselves, then study about autobiographical/narrative writing by reading other texts and connecting it back to their own.

In a struggling classroom, where students are clearly behind on literacy and the curriculum in general, I believe that they must be reached in some way. I think that creative writing, specifically creative writing strategies, are the most successful means of increasing student interest, literacy, and learning.

In an article entitled, “Where Are We Going Next? A Conversation about Creative Writing Pedagogy (Pt. 1)” by writers/professors Cathy Day, Anna Leahy, and Stephanie Vanderslice, Cathy Day writes that “there’s a distinct polarization between the critical and the creative, and this discipline—creative writing pedagogy—sits on that divide” (Day, C., Leahy, A., & Vanderslice, S., 2011). Her opinion is backed by fellow author Stephanie Vanderslice, who says, “I would advocate for a creative writing course in the general education curriculum…in this post-information age, the ability to convey information via a compelling sense of narrative and story will be a critical skill” (Day, C., Leahy, A., & Vanderslice, S., 2011). Both of these authors advocate for creative writing strategies because these strategies create a bridge between ‘critical and creative’—the classroom content and how it can be personally applied.

The authors continue to advocate for creative writing strategies in the classroom in the remainder of this article and into Part 2. In Part 2, Leahy discusses the positives of narrative writing and feedback: it can “open up conversation and potential” (Day, C., Leahy, A., & Vanderslice, S., Sept. 2011). For a classroom, using these creative strategies can allow students to connect more deeply with one another. They can be in communication with one another about texts, about their own writing, and thus be more engaged in reading as well. Creative writing strategies also open the door to many curriculum avenues. As Day explains, creative writing can include digital writing: ‘narrative via blog, podcast, video, and website[s]’ (Day, C., Leahy, A., & Vanderslice, S., 2011). The strategies are not always pen-and-paper, but can be opened up to integrate technology and other multi-media resources, allowing students to explore reading and writing in other, and even more contemporary, ways.

In regard to literacy, creative writing strategies make a huge and positive impact. Because of the stress on academic writing in the field of education, teachers have been working to include more reading and writing into their daily curriculum. According to the Mentoring Minds website, “One of the best ways for developing student literacy is through creative writing exercises. Creative writing allows students to write on their own terms, freeing them from the pressure of accurate content and proper form” (Avirett et al., 2014). Creative writing allows students to develop their own voices and means of communication; the authors of this article argue that these strategies help students “feel a deeper connection with the practice of writing, thus providing the motivation to develop higher-level literacy skills” (Avirett et al., 2014). In other words, creative writing/creative writing strategies develop literacy in two ways: through personal identification and through practice.

In regard to personal identification, the Mentoring Minds authors argue the following:

The ability to express one’s thoughts in writing, as well as interpret the ideas of others through reading, are directly related to more fundamental thinking patterns…The aim of literacy instruction is to develop the reading and writing skills of students and at the same time develop the underlying mental processes. Therefore, teaching literacy skills is not just about instructing students in how to read and write, but rather, how to think as well (Avirett et al., 2014).

This section emphasizes the pathways between creative writing and literacy—that both the thinking process and the practice of writing creatively assist in developing literacy. Because students will be learning to write more freely and be reading more material, their literacy will develop and strengthen.

The article also discusses ways in which creative writing exercises can help students to develop writing and thinking skills. Encouraging students to free write or write from a selected prompt can help them make stronger connections between thoughts and language, which ultimately results in the strengthening of their literacy skills as well (Avirett et al., 2014). Creative writing can also be used as reflective writing, which relates to student literacy in the ways students will be both writing, then reading their own responses, others’ responses, and additional texts.

The idea of ‘creative writing’ and its strategies is broad; it encompasses a variety of ideas, from prompts to poetry, to reflections and narrative writing, and to even short-story. For a secondary reading classroom specifically, creative writing strategies can be implemented in working with any classroom textbook. For example, if the students are reading a novel for class, a creative writing activity could be having the students take on the persona of a character in the book and write several paragraphs from that character’s point of view. This is a strategy that encourages narrative/first-person writing, but through the lens of another, which also leans towards short-story writing as well.

Creativity is essential for the classroom; this is something author and high school teacher Hilve Firek writes in her article, “Creative Writing in the Social Studies Classroom: Promoting Literacy and Content Learning.” Though her article focuses on social studies as the main content area, the ideas still apply, as her classroom uses much literature and writing similar to that of a secondary reading classroom.

In her article, Firek states:

The desire to generate something new, something unique, is inherent in every human being. Most high-school students’ notebooks are filled with doodles, drawings, song lyrics, poetry, or random words that have meaning only for the writer…However, today’s test-centered curriculum tends to beat that urge to submission. As educators, we must encourage students’ creative energies and enable them to engage with content in new and stimulating ways (Firek, 2006).

She also explains that in her social studies classroom, one of the best ways to assist students in understanding the main concepts is to have them write, especially creatively. By integrating creative writing and creative writing strategies into the classroom, it helps students ‘develop important literacy skills…by see[ing] concepts in new and unique ways’ (Firek, 2006). She gives examples of creative writing strategies in her article, everything from soldier letters to their families, to song lyrics, screen plays, diary entries, poems/class poems, even political cartoons. In connecting this back to my clinical placement, I had my students create a cartoon/comic as a means of introducing them to a larger writing assignment. Getting them to make a unique and creative comic helped to bridge between their thoughts and their writing; they were also able to have a basis for their writing assignment that seemed to give them a better understanding of what was expected as well as more confidence heading into the actual writing portion.

Firek also states that writing can be both an end and a means to an end; as a ‘means to the end’ students can interact and work with their ideas and information gained from classroom/textbook content. Writing about these ideas/information, then, becomes a tool in creating something unique or gaining a deeper understanding. She quotes another teacher, Elizabeth Harris (an advanced placement high school history teacher) in her article, who says that having her students write creatively ‘necessitates thinking, reordering facts, reprocessing information, and results in retention’ (Firek, 2006).  In this way, literacy is strengthened through the students’ mental processes—reading, re-reading, organizing information, and writing creatively in a way that integrates all their learning together.

The article also talks about creative writing as a way of helping students with research. Through the lens of creativity, students can write something fun, but it can also incorporate factual information, giving their writing a historical, literal, or contextual base. With research, students will read a variety of materials and find ways to connect what they read to what they’re writing—another useful way to promote and strengthen student literacy.

In today’s educational world, students are too often bored, unengaged, or struggling with classroom content. It is important to find ways for students to connect material to their personal lives, but the means of doing this is often difficult. In my personal clinical experience this semester, and in the research I’ve studied and gathered for this paper, I’ve realized the importance of creative writing strategies as unique and useful ways to connect students to classroom content and promote literacy. I think that in a secondary English, and especially secondary reading classroom, these creative writing strategies can help students to reflect on classroom material, read one another’s work and outside texts, develop writing of their own, and make deeper connections between their thoughts and classroom novels/textbooks/resources. Through the integration of creative strategies, students can be encouraged to relate to the material personally; most importantly, their literacy will be strengthened, which is the ultimate goal of any secondary English and reading teacher.

 

 

For the pdf version of the paper and a list of complete sources, click here.

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